For better or for worse, automation is going to have an affect on specific jobs in Houston. Getty Images

A new report from UpSkill Houston, a workforce initiative of the Greater Houston Partnership, puts the implications of workplace automation into stark focus. According to the report, more than 50 percent of middle-skill jobs in the Houston area face a higher-than-average risk of being upset by automation.

Peter Beard, who leads UpSkill Houston and is senior vice president for workforce development at the Greater Houston Partnership, says this means technology will "get embedded even more in the workplace than it's ever been before. … People's jobs will change because they have to work alongside technology. And there will be some jobs that get displaced because of that technology."

"Robots are coming," he adds, "but they're not going to replace us. We're going to have to figure out how to work beside them."

Middle-skill jobs require less than a four-year bachelor's degree but more than a high school diploma. In other words, jobs fitting into this middle ground might demand a two-year associate's degree or a training certificate from a technical school.

The report, released July 16, points out that middle-skill occupations in manufacturing and construction, for instance, face a high risk of disruption as companies adopt technologies that automate tasks, such as prefabrication of building materials. By contrast, the report notes, automation places jobs in the health care and service sectors in far less jeopardy because they generally rely on tasks that can't easily be automated. For example, jobs in health care often require social skills that can't be replicated through automation, which includes artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine learning.

However, jobs in health care aren't entirely immune from shifts in the workplace. The report indicates jobs in workforce segments like health care, sales and office support, IT, management, and drafting now require a medium or high level of digital skills.

That being said, all workers — regardless of their industry, occupation, or education — must embrace solid digital skills in order to succeed in the workforce, the report states. Beard says that to compete in today's workforce, a high school graduate must be proficient in Microsoft's Word, Excel, and PowerPoint programs as well as in a customer relationship management platform like Salesforce.

The findings in the UpSkill Houston report come at a pivotal time for the Houston economy, given the job-slashing double whammy of the coronavirus pandemic and the oil slump. The pandemic "has accelerated and accentuated a fundamental change that has been underway — a change in the education and skills needed to be successful in the workforce today and into the future," the report states.

That change poses particular challenges for low-skill and middle-skill workers in the Houston area, according to the report. The report recommends that workforce development stakeholders, including employers, schools, and community organizations, build a regional "framework" aimed at ramping up skillsets so workers can seize increasingly elevated career opportunities.

"It all starts with the employer. The employer is in the best position to know what skills they need today and what skills they are likely to need tomorrow," Beard says. "Fundamentally, we're trying to create a supply chain of talent that meets the needs of our economy and the needs of our employers."

But that takes employers collaborating with schools to ensure those skills are being taught, he says, and employers and schools motivating students to consider jobs that incorporate those skills.

Beard assigns those skills to four categories:

  • Technical skills
  • Digital skills
  • Soft skills, such as communication
  • Problem-solving skills

"This whole push we've had that everyone should go to college and get a four-year degree has made folks consider jobs that don't require a four-year college degree to be menial," Beard says. "That same mentality has also permeated the employers. How many job descriptions have we seen that put a four-year degree requirement on them but that don't require four years of college education?"

We're living in the age of machine learning and artificial intelligence. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Now is the time to expand machine learning, says Houston researcher

Houston voices

One might not expect the game of checkers to have anything to do with artificial intelligence, but the game really marked the beginning of machine learning in 1959. Pioneered by an MIT professor named Arthur Lee Samuel, it was discovered that teaching a simple strategy game to a computer is not so simple when every move needs to be anticipated.

Smart machines Additionally, in a Forbes article about the difference between artificial intelligence and machine learning, Bernard Marr comments, "Artificial Intelligence is the broader concept of machines being able to carry out tasks in a way that we would consider 'smart'. And, machine learning is a current application of AI based around the idea that we should really just be able to give machines access to data and let them learn for themselves."

That's the premise of many a movie involving computers which become sentient, but is it really science fiction anymore?

Meet the new boss

Teaching a computer to think like a human is advantageous and includes the added bonus of increased speed. Computers aren't biased, either — which is why huge corporations, such as Unilever, use computers to thin out their first wave of applicants. You actually interview with a bot when you begin the employment process there.

Cause and effect AI and ML are often used in cybersecurity efforts — at least one would suppose. But in Security magazine, Jordan Mauriello writes: "AI/ML cannot do causation." That means artificial intelligence cannot, at this point in time, tell you why something happened. The why? is best left to experts who deal with game theory and other ways of determining how to defend against hypothetical attacks.

Get in on the ground floor

The field is growing and students at colleges across the country are beginning to train for careers in it in droves.

"America's top colleges are ramping up their research efforts and developing concentrations for their computer science degree programs to accommodate this high-tech field," writes Great Value Colleges on their blog. It looks as though this discipline is on an upward trajectory and shows no sign of slowing down.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

AvidXchange executives explain why a crisis like the pandemic can provide opportunities for growth or realignment. Photo via Getty Images

Overheard: Fintech company with Houston ties sees opportunity for growth in new work-from-home age

Eavesdropping in Houston

From esports to telemedicine, some technologies are having a major moment during the COVID-19 crisis. As many businesses are operating remotely with work-from-home policies in place indefinitely, payments automation is another technology that's seen an opportunity amid the pandemic.

AvidXchange, which has invoice and payment processes automation software for mid-market businesses, is one of the companies in this payment automation space that's seen growth in spite of the economic downturn caused by the virus. The Charlotte, North Carolina-based company was founded in 2000 and went on to acquire Houston-founded Strongroom Solutions Inc. in 2015.

Since the acquisition, AvidXchange has quadrupled its presence in Houston and does a good deal of business locally. Equipping companies with tools for remote work is crucial — now and especially in light of Houston's propensity for challenges. Tyler Gill, vice president of sales for AvidXchange based in the Houston office and former CEO of Strongroom, joined Houston Exponential on a virtual panel to discuss this topic.

"We've had a history of disasters in Houston. Any time we can help businesses move to a more cloud-based infrastructure is going to be better," Gill says on the livestream. "I think working from home is maybe the new normal for a lot of employees — so how do we enable this?"

Gill and his colleague, Chris Elmore, senior sales performance director at AvidXchange, joined Joey Sanchez of HX for the talk about the acquisition, the pandemic, and growth for the company. If you missed it or don't have time to stream the whole conversation, here are some impactful moments of the chat.

“Economic downturns have a tendency to put a very bright light on a feature set or a product or a service that’s underperforming."

— Elmore says on how the pandemic affects innovation and startups. "My hope is that entrepreneurs will see this as a real time to get focused on their business — what's working well and what's not working well — and my hope is that they'll say, 'I need to fix that,' not 'I wish this was better,'" he says.

“For a young entrepreneur looking to build a business, make sure you’re looking for the people who are germane to your business.”

— Gill says about starting his business in Houston. At first, he was trying to find investors in oil and gas, but he found more success working with companies with a background in finance technology. "Houston has a history and density in fintech — I just had to find it."

“The fact that Strongroom owned the automated payment process in HOA that made them so attractive to AvidXchange because we didn’t.”

— Elmore says on the 2015 acquisition. He explains that AvidXchange had set up a presence in multifamily and commercial real estate, while Strongroom had a hold on homeowner's association, or HOA, business. The two companies competed for a while, and if Strongroom hadn't had their HOA specialty that made the company ideal for acquisition, Elmore says the two companies would still be competing today.

“When Strongroom was added to AvidXchange, our culture improved. By the way, we went from 40 employees to 1,000 within 14 months, and Strongroom was right at the beginning of that.”

— Elmore says on growth following the acquisition. The company now has 1,500 employees across seven offices and just closed a $128 million round of fundraising in April.

“Customers don’t care how big you get or how much money you raise from investors. They care about if your service is still doing the things they need to operate their business.”

— Gill says, reminding entrepreneurs to always prioritize and be focused on the client experience — through mergers or acquisitions, fundraising rounds, growth, etc.

“When you replace human interaction with technology, what you have to do, is to now move that person on to something more impactful and more important for the business. I don’t like tech for tech’s sake.”

— Elmore says on the importance of automation. "When you automate something, the output of automation is time," he adds.

“Houston couldn’t be a better place to build a business — I found great investors and employees here. It’s a city that’s used to risk. But it’s got to be you, the entrepreneur, that’s got something festering — that’s how you know it’s a great idea.”

— Gill says on inspiring future innovators. "What kept me motivated was I wanted to win. I felt like we had a great product, and we had a big market to serve. … I wanted to build something lasting and build a great team."

“We continue to be a great Houston story — some of my angel investors in Houston are still benefiting."

— Gill says on AvidXchange's presence in Houston. He adds that he's proud of how his former Strongroom team members have risen through the ranks of the company following the acquisition and that he sees the company, which is still privately held, moving toward IPO.

Houston's DataCon can help prepare business leaders for the digital revolution in AI and machine learning. Getty Images

Houston companies need to get ready for an artificial intelligence and machine learning revolution

The future is now

Looming on the horizon is a data tsunami coming towards us at breakneck speed. Companies have worked hard to keep up, creating digital transformation, taking manual processes from desktops, clipboards, and the paper paradigm to the Cloud. We're now sitting on huge quantities of idle bits of information called dark data. It's over collected and unused data that has the potential power to create decision-making brilliance.

Business leaders are attempting to optimize siloed data – unrelated data collected in databases and spreadsheets or obsolete apps, to make critical decisions. We currently connect these siloes with other systems using a data processing step called ETL – Extract, Transform and Load. Take the data from one place, transform it so it can relate to another data resource and then load that data to another place for analysis. It's a big, time consuming, intermediary step we have figured out how to circumvent. "NoETL" technology is the next-generation magic wand of machine thinking and it's a game-changer.

As non-technical business leaders, we rely on our partners in IT to give us meaningful data that charts our course. They've been our faithful navigators. We've made the recommended investment in IT infrastructure and technology and counted on receiving analytics that will result in winning outcomes. It's now time to sit down at the table and have new conversations with IT leadership around AI.

A tectonic shift

We are now in a new place. AI has come upon us quickly and the promise of ROI is great. There are new technologies that give business leaders advantages never before realized. Data science is the new crystal ball to the future of business. Automation and machine learning are taking historical data to a look ahead using algorithms and mathematical modeling. It's a new predictive mindset. What business leader wouldn't want that crystal ball?

The real assets of your business exist not in better machines but in your current data stores which are like coal mines waiting for data science to turn those lumps of coal into data diamonds.

There are new vocabulary words associated with data analytics. Data science thought leaders are preparing the way for businesses to have learning opportunities and to know which resources to tap for direction in creating new competitive dynamics. Don't wait too long to be curious. The early adopters are already a step ahead and the competitive marketplace is changing in unexpected ways.

Leadership resources for the implementation of AI

Legacy businesses with data lakes are ripe for action. Who should lead the charge? It's up to the C-suite to have intentional conversations around data science. It's up to leadership to be ready to speak and understand new concepts and vocabulary combined with leaps of faith needed to join the new world order of information.

Learning resources 

Proactively look for learning opportunities. There are no excuses for not taking the initiative. No matter where you are in your career – this isn't something to linger about.

One upcoming seminar around AI and automation collaboration and education is DataCon Houston. It's an annual conference that brings important concepts around AI and Automation to business leaders. The target audience is not IT professionals, although there will be some in attendance; it's meant primarily to help the C-suite and non-technical leaders know where to begin and where to find that new vocabulary and translative resources. AI will affect every person in every business, and we must be ready for the cultural shifts that will come with the technological shifts.

Authors and thought leaders — George Danner, Dave McComb, and Gerald Kane will be speaking at DataCon October 10, 2019. In addition, Javier Fadul, director of innovation for HTX Labs will be speaking about XR and data visualization and its use in training employees and creating safer workplaces. Stefanos Damianakis will be teaching machine learning 101 and Juan Sequeda, principal scientist of data.world will present his UltraWrap NoETL patented technology.

Solving the unsolvable

The future of decision-making will render in blinks of an eye. Problems we thought unsolvable will suddenly have answers. Business leaders must get behind the leap of faith required for our own companies and push learning and understanding forward across the organization at all levels. AI and machine learning are the vortex of change. Are you ready for AI?

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Suzette Cotto is CEO of Innovate Social Media, a digital marketing agency specializing marketing for startups in the medical, technology, and energy industries. For more information on DataCon Houston 2019, please visit: https://incitelogix.com/datacon-houston-2019/

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Houston data solutions startup rebrands, expands to support neuroscience research

startup soars

With a new CEO and chief operating officer aboard, Houston-based DataJoint is thinking small in order to go big.

Looking ahead to 2022, DataJoint aims to enable hundreds of smaller projects rather than a handful of mega-projects, CEO Dimitri Yatsenko says. DataJoint develops data management software that empowers collaboration in the neuroscience and artificial intelligence sectors.

"Our strategy is to take the lessons that we have learned over the past four years working with major projects with multi-institutional consortia," Yatsenko says, "and translate them into a platform that thousands of labs can use efficiently to accelerate their research and make it more open and rigorous."

Ahead of that shift, the startup has undergone some significant changes, including two moves in the C-suite.

Yatsenko became CEO in February after stints as vice president of R&D and as president. He co-founded the company as Vathes LLC in 2016. Yatsenko succeeded co-founder Edgar Walker, who had been CEO since May 2020 and was vice president of engineering before that.

In tandem with Yatsenko's ascent to CEO, the company brought aboard Jason Kirkpatrick as COO. Kirkpatrick previously was chief financial officer of Houston-based Darcy Partners, an energy industry advisory firm; chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Houston-based Solid Systems CAD Services (SSCS), an IT services company; and senior vice president of finance and general manager of operations at Houston-based SmartVault Corp., a cloud-based document management company.

"Most of our team are scientists and engineers. Recruiting an experienced business leader was a timely step for us, and Jason's vast leadership experience in the software industry and recurring revenue models added a new dimension to our team," Yatsenko says.

Other recent changes include:

  • Converting from an LLC structure to a C corporation structure to enable founders, employees, and future investors to be granted shares of the company's stock.
  • Shortening the business' name to DataJoint from DataJoint Neuro and recently launching its rebranded website.
  • Moving the company's office from the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute (TMCx) to the Galleria area. The new space will make room for more employees. Yatsenko says the 12-employee startup plans to increase its headcount to 15 to 20 by the end of this year.

Over the past five years, the company's customer base has expanded to include neuroscience institutions such as Princeton University's Princeton Neuroscience Institute and Columbia University's Zuckerman Institute for Brain Science, as well as University College London and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. DataJoint's growth has been fueled in large part by grants from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"The work we are tackling has our team truly excited about the future, particularly the capabilities being offered to the neuroscience community to understand how the brain forms perceptions and generates behavior," Yatsenko says.

Deadline extended for inaugural InnovationMap Awards nominations

nominate now

If you didn't get a chance to submit your nomination for the inaugural InnovationMap Awards presented by Techwave by the July 23 deadline — you're in luck. The nomination period has been extended, and you now have an extra week to submit.

The new — and final — deadline for nominations is July 30 by midnight. Submissions can be made online at InnovationMapAwards.com.

Following nominations, the nominated companies will receive an application to submit by August 13. The already nominated companies will receive their applications today. So, if you're interested in being a part of the awards and you haven't received an application from InnovationMap by the end of Monday, July 26, your company has not already been nominated.

The categories for the awards are:

  • BIPOC-Owned Business honoring an innovative tech company founded or co-founded by BIPOC representation
  • Female-Owned Business honoring an innovative tech company founded or co-founded by a woman
  • Health Care Business honoring a health care business with an innovative solution within life sciences
  • Energy Transition Business honoring an energy business with an innovative solution within renewables, climatetech, clean energy, and beyond
  • Space Tech Business honoring an aerospace business with an innovative solution within space exploration
  • Sports Tech Business honoring a tech business with an innovative solution within sports
  • Top Founder Under 40 honoring an innovative founder younger than 40 by Sept. 8, 2021
  • Lifetime Achievement Award honoring an innovator who's made a lasting impact on the Houston innovation community
  • People's Choice: Startup of the Year selected via an internet voting portal ahead of the event
  • Techwave's Texas Advocate Awards honoring two non-Houston based companies selected by our presenting sponsor, Techwave

Earlier this month, InnovationMap named the eight judges for this year's awards. Click here to see who will be selecting the award finalists and winners.

Follow along on InnovationMap as we learn more about the program's inaugural nominees. Then, on September 8, we will host the finalists and a group of special guests at The Cannon for a celebration of the city's top innovators. A livestream of the event will be open to everyone on the night of the awards — tune in to find out who takes home the big win across all 10 categories.

Click here to RSVP for what will surely be a can't-miss event in Houston innovation.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from oil and gas tech to pharmaceuticals — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Robert Kester, president and general manager at Honeywell Rebellion

Robert Kester, founder of Rebellion Photonics and president and general manager at Honeywell

Robert Kester joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his entrepreneurial journey. Photo courtesy of Honeywell

Robert Kester co-founded Rebellion Photonics in 2010. After several years of developing the device that could be used to automate the process and improve safety on oil and gas sites, Kester and his team saw a rising need for the tech — which also meant a need for Rebellion to scale quickly. In 2019, Rebellion exited in an acquisition by Honeywell.

"For us it just made sense that we could team up with Honeywell and figure out how we could scale this thing globally and quickly, so that we could help be a solution for climate change," Kester continues.

Now, as president and general manager at Honeywell Rebellion, Kester still works on his technology under the umbrella of the Honeywell brand. He joined the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to discuss the transition and what he's focused on now. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Serafina Lalany, interim president of Houston Exponential

Serafina Lalany, vice president of operations at Houston Exponential

Last week, Serafina Lalany is acting as interim identifies the organization's new leader. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Serafina Lalany, vice president of operations at Houston Exponential, will act as interim executive director for the organization after Harvin Moore, who has served as president of HX since June 2019, announced his resignation last week. HX's Chair Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, says Moore is resigning to devote more time to working with growth-stage companies as a mentor, adviser, and investor.

"In a rapidly growing and evolving landscape like this one, we must ensure resources are leveraged for greatest impact," Burger says. "The HX executive committee believes now is an appropriate time re-strategize with the HX organization to ensure it is aligned with the current needs of the innovation ecosystem. While changes may be called for to place resources where they can do the most good, there remains a need for a broad ecosystem champion and HX will continue to serve in that role." Click here to read more.

Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy

Houston founder talks growth and innovation in the pharmaceuticals industry Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy, joined InnovationMap for a Q&A on his rapidly growing compounding pharmacy business. Photo courtesy of Empower Pharmacy

Shaun Noorian founded Empower Pharmacy so he could create a business that was service focused, and now the company has grown and expanded — and is now working on building two new 85,000-square-foot facilities in Houston. Noorian, in a Q&A with InnovationMap, explained that Houston has been integral to his success.

"I think being in Houston is one of the reasons why we've grown to become the largest compounding pharmacy in the nation," Noorian tells InnovationMap. "I'm sure we're all aware that having the largest medical center in the world in your own backyard is a great way to have more prescribers than pretty much any other city in the country. That definitely helped us and continues to help us grow.

"Additionally, being the third largest city by population means we have a large workforce to pull a diverse workforce for whatever this company needs," he continues. "Having a diverse workforce has been integral in our growth." Click here to read more.